Opinion: Mental Illness Should Not Be Taboo in the Workplace

The first time I realized mental illness could hinder my career, I was a sophomore in college. The first semester of that year yielded a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder and moderate depression, but it was also when I got involved in writing for my college’s newspaper and truly developed a passion for journalism. I was offered a section editor position with the paper for the following semester, and ultimately had that offer taken away.

The offer caught me by surprise and I accepted with hesitation disclosing my doubts based on what I had dealt with that semester. The position went to someone who the editors said they felt was “more ready.”

I was angry at myself. Did my oversharing just sabotage my own chances of getting a position that would be a great resume-builder? In hindsight, I may not have been in the best place mentally to take on the stressful responsibilities of an editor anyway. (I took up the position my senior year and loved it.) But when someone has a condition you can see, the obstacles they face and the accommodations they require are clearer and less taboo.

My mental illnesses manifest through both physical and mental symptoms and are episodic. Racing thoughts, tearfulness, headaches, shortness of breath, tingling limbs, racing heart, nausea, vomiting, chest tightness and fatigue are certainly not symptoms ideal for any office or newsroom. But neither are fevers, stomach bugs or flu. Or symptoms associated with disabilities like heart disease, fibromyalgia and diabetes. In reality, employees with any of these conditions are not any less valuable than employees without them — they just sometimes require extra accommodations to help them do their jobs.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it illegal to discriminate against someone in employment, housing and other services based on disability. The ADA protects people with physical and cognitive disabilities from being denied opportunities in the workplace. Certain mental illnesses — like anxiety and depression — also often qualify when they hinder a person’s ability to do their job. People with mental illnesses also are entitled to reasonable accommodations under the ADA.

When it comes to any condition, disclosing it and asking for accommodations can be a challenge. The ADA legally protects people from discrimination, but it can’t change people’s minds about those with disabilities or mental illnesses.

When it comes to mental illness, though, the fears of seeming unprofessional, of oversharing, of disclosing too much personal information or of seeming unstable or “crazy” are what keep many people with mental illness from being honest and, instead, hiding in bathroom stalls or cars to cope with panic attacks or going for the generic “I don’t feel well today. Can I work from home?”

Much of the professional world has schemas within which we can interact. We can joke and laugh with our coworkers, or even act stressed when work gets overwhelming, but an anxiety attack complete with snot, tears, nausea and heavy breathing or a depression episode that leads to numbness, emptiness and a lack of motivation are definitely less acceptable.

Many personality tests applicants are required to take upon being accepted for a position include questions like “I handle stressful situations easily,” “I have no problem regulating my emotions” or “I sustain high levels of energy.” Some people with mental illnesses struggle in these areas but still are talented, driven and professional.

According to the Center for Disease Control, depression affects a person’s ability to complete physical job tasks about 20% of the time and affects their cognitive ability 35% of the time. According to an Anxiety and Depression Association of America survey, 56% of respondents said anxiety disorders affected their workplace performance. In one national survey the American Psychiatric Association cited a study titled “Mental Illness in the Workplace: Psychological Disability Management” by Harder et. al in which 30% of working adults with an anxiety disorder reported reduced work productivity over the previous 4 weeks while 0.5 % of working adults without a mental illness reported reduced productivity.

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The World Health Organization estimated that 12 billion working days will be lost by the year 2030 because of mental illness, which would cost about $925 billion globally. The study also found for every $1 invested in mental health treatment, there is a $4 return for the economy.

Breaking down the stigma of discussing mental health in the workplace benefits companies.

The adoption of mental health-related employee resource groups (ERGs) is growing. Mindsharepartners.org created a comprehensive list of companies that offer ERGs that address mental wellness.

Johnson & Johnson, a Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Hall of Famer that appears at No. 7 on Fair360, formerly DiversityInc’s 2019 specialty list, “Best Companies for Employee Resource Groups,” has an ERG called Mental Health Diplomats. Accenture (No. 7 on the Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Top 50 list), EY (No. 6 on “Best Companies for People with Disabilities” and No. 1 on “Best Companies for Employee Resource Groups”) and Kaiser Permanente (No. 14 on “Best Companies for People with Disabilities”) all have ERGs that discuss mental illness.

EY also launched a program in 2016 called “R u ok?” to address mental illness and addiction. As part of the program, EY provides support including 24/7 counseling.

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The World Health Organization recommends that employers assess their workplace environment and determine if it should be adapted to better foster mental health — just like a workplace can be made more accessible for those with physical disabilities — and raising awareness about the support and resources that are available.

Culture has to change. If we can discuss accommodations we may need for anxiety attacks the same way we can discuss those we need for migraine attacks, we’ll have healthier, more productive workplaces.